by Tom Bair

So I’m on the train and it’s going along but it keeps starting and stopping, not at designated stops, but, like, in the middle of the tunnel. It’s early enough in the morning for this to be a treat, really. If I’m late to where I’m going I’ll be able to say that the train did it to me. I was on schedule but a few unpredictable stops hijacked my notorious timeliness. Whether or not this is the truth (the train is what has made me late) is elementary, my dear reader. The gift I’m being given from all of this stop-n-go is a few extra minutes of sitting here, reading my book, looking up from my book, thinking about my book, looking around, making and avoiding eye contact with my fellow supplicants, looking around without really perceiving anything, growing exhausted from my thinking (or lack thereof), reminding myself to read, and so on. Not only that. Say, for instance, I am five minutes late. It will make little difference in the mind of this particular destination whether I am five or seven or even nine minutes late. So the train has granted me a certain flexibility. And either way, initially, it was in all honesty the train that derailed me. You understand.

And the book that I’m reading is Notes From the Underground. Which is a pun. Because I’m on a train. Underground. I’ve reduced my life to a pun. Or, I’ve elevated my life to pun! You’ll forgive me for pointing this out, subtlety is not a flavor this blog thing is known for, and if I was interested in subtlety I’d take up poetry, for instance. Pah! Poetry. An inside joke, a friend of mine says, which I repeat whenever I get the chance. And you will forgive my digression here. Like my train, I also stop-n-go. Also like my train, I have a destination and I will arrive there, my tardiness is simply one part of today’s excursion.

I’m riding my train and I’m reading Dostoevsky and I find that he reminds me of my train as well. Intelligence is a disease for the speaker of this story, one that paralyzes precisely in proportion to its ability to acutely comprehend. Told in two parts, the first part is a million conflicting treatises on the modern condition, the second is an example of the difficulty this narrator faces when choosing to go “out there,” above ground, into the social world. The narrator cannot choose a position; finds those that can choose a position to be, well, stupid; and yet undergoes immense (and very personal) suffering as result of his incapacitation.

I do a fair bit of reading when I’m on the train. It gives me a place to put my eyes. I read lots of stuff, but I’d say 80 percent of that stuff is something literary. There is a part of me that finds this repulsive. Whether or not what I’m reading has literary merit is irrelevant. There are only so many places one can devote their attention. That’s why the phrase is “pay attention” —focus is a limited resource. It has to be budgeted, or at least that is the suggestion here. Basically, why read? That’s a big question mark (that’s what she said). Gross. A question mark shaped phallus sounds like something from a novel from the ’70s. It’s legitimate question, although certainly not a novel one. It seems to me that this question is what has been driving fiction-making for a long time (especially recently). Big up Don Quixote. My answer (for now): people scare me. I prefer characters. At least they know they’re mediated. They can reshape me, join me, have a conversation with me, show me what they are doing, but they don’t impose on anything but my head space. When I return to the world from these books, it (the world) seems more vibrant, more correct, more evenly proliferated with meaning—but also bewildering.

And my initial summation of Notes from the Underground skipped the important stuff, which is two-fold:

1. Notes from the Underground was published in 1864. This predates a lot of the hyper self-referential stuff to which fiction has become accustomed. Yet the author is aware that his protagonist is permitted to inflate himself in such a way that is only possible in stories. For example, here is our “underground man” speaking to a prostitute:

. . . Are you fond of little children, Liza? I am awfully fond of them. You know—a little rosy baby boy at your bosom and what husband’s heart is not touched, seeing his wife nursing his child! A plump little rosy baby, sprawling and snuggling, chubby little hands and feet, clean tiny little nails, so tiny that it makes one laugh to look at them; eyes that look as if they understand everything. And while it sucks it clutches at your bosom with its little hand, plays. When its father comes up, the child tears itself away from the bosom, flings itself back, looks at its father, laughs, as though it were fearfully funny, and falls to sucking again. Or it will bite its mother’s breast when its little teeth are coming, while it looks sideways at her with its little eyes as though to say, ‘Look, I am biting!’ Is not all that happiness when they are the three together, husband, wife and child? One can forgive a great deal for the sake of such moments. Yes, Liza, one must first learn to love oneself before one blames others!”

“It’s by pictures, pictures like that one must get at you,” I thought to myself, though I did speak with real feeling, and all at once I flushed crimson. “What if she were suddenly to burst out laughing, what should I do then?” That idea drove me to fury. Towards the end of my speech I really was excited, and now my vanity was somehow wounded. The silence continued. I almost nudged her.

“Why are you—” she began and stopped. But I understood: there was a quiver of something different in her voice, not abrupt, harsh and unyielding as before, but something soft and shamefaced, so shamefaced that I suddenly felt ashamed and guilty.

“What?” I asked, with tender curiosity

“Why, you …”


“Why, you … speak somehow like a book,” she said, and again there was a note of irony in her voice.

That remark sent a pang to my heart. It was not what I was expecting.

The irony of course is that this, in fact, is a character from a book. What does he mean, “It was not was I was expecting.”? The answer begins by noting that this character is told through the techniques of realism. He does not think of himself as character, but as a person. But look again at the line, “It is by pictures, pictures like that that one must get at you”—if he is a person, he is a person that yearns to be a character in a book, which he is!

This is the first technique of the reflexive work: commenting on the body through which you are operating, and showing how it affects the body being operated on. The narrator is “the underground man”. He prefers “the matrix of book learning.” For this reason, he quests to be made static, made into a still, a picture. And this technique is often mistaken as being only “art about art.” True, artists and critics seem to be the only people fascinated with this mode of story-telling. One exception, of course, comes from the show Seinfeld, in which characters on a TV show comically describe pitching a TV show to NBC. But even Seinfeld exposes this technique’s weakness—it exposes how utterly closeted the underground man is to any shared reality.

2. The second procedure of Notes is more difficult, and more elusive. It is the mark of some of Beckett’s work, Proust, and hallmark of John Ashbery. It is to capture “thought” without producing a thought. In the words of another friend, it is the experience of experience, and not experience. Notes is less successful at this, but it is a nice example precisely because it is easier to discuss.

I find myself wanting to move on, make some larger points about these two methods.

In sum, if the first part of Notes from the Underground did not include the second, you would have a veritable essay on modernity. If the second did not include the first, we’d have been presented with a confusing story about a man who cannot make up his mind. Together they present and perform (live and breathe) a sample of Dostoevsky’s condition as a living, breathing, overwrought person.

Reflexive thought, the thinking that is aware that it is thinking, is in no uncertain terms the dominant procedure of contemporary art making. From the paintings of Jackson Pollack to porn stars having a conversation directly with the camera man, from Charlie Kaufmann’s scripts to Jay-Z’s “Lyrical Exercise” track, these two techniques have permeated through every crevice of the creative impetus. Moreover, reflexivity is by no means relegated to the arts. Economics, anthropology, even cooking is aware of itself as medium, rare or well-done. Oy. Further, psychology might be described as a wholly reflexive discipline—the study of the human condition by humans.

It is as if somewhere in 20th century woman became self-aware, computer-apocalypse style. Maybe this is part of the fascination with robots take-overs and apocalypse lit: if we’re collectively on a train, the train seems to be taking a long pause in the middle of the tunnel.

Again, this is not a novel thought. Much has been said about the coming-to-terms with written culture. And of course, lots can still be said. I’ll add that the blog is a great forum for this kind of thought—blogs are by definition process. For example, at the moment you’re being talked to about how I am talking about my talking about the talking that is about talking.

But, and here, in the words of another underground man, is the rub: What about arriving at a destination? What if the has train stopped and this is where I stays? Would this be a blessing? At least for a while? Forward motion of course presumes that you have somewhere to be. And it’s not clear that, at this juncture, we have any idea where we’re going. I have heard it said that we had a clear map, a clear directionality, and that those directions may still hold sway, but that map has been written-on and marked-up for so many centuries that our original path is impossible to decipher.

So in the words of the subway conductor, whose job is to push the buttons and speak into the microphone, perhaps our task is now to “hold tight, thanks for the patience.”

But next month I will consider again Beckett’s third stage, one marked by an abstention of entertainment value and of precision in both language and forms.

Tags: , , , , , , ,